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"Blue" Gene Tyranny - Detours

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Artist: "Blue" Gene Tyranny

Album: Detours

Label: Unseen Worlds

Review date: Jan. 16, 2012

As a teen, “Blue” Gene Tyranny (then known as Robert Sheff) applied to attend Julliard. In an interview with William Duckworth for his book Talking Music, Tyranny describes his audition at the school, where his technical proficiency at the audition was offset by what “Blue” remembers as the board’s hostile reaction to his early, Cage-influenced graphic scores. Tyranny was accepted to the school, but rejected the offered scholarship and took the bus to Ann Arbor, where he’d live until a job offer at Mills College lured him to the West coast.

The story of the 16-year-old Sheff’s day in New York is one that has typified his life and work: His considerable natural talent at the keyboard is forever tweaked and tested by his penchant for seeking new avenues, moving in unexpected directions, and embracing the unknown. It’s fitting that Tyranny named his most recent album Detours. The title is suggestive of both Tyranny’s career path and the music on the album, as both are marked by an enthusiastic sense of exploration and continual refusal to follow the predictable path from one point to another. Just as Tyranny circa 1961 was forgoing the usual trajectory toward musical success, Detours finds today’s Tyranny setting out on unpredictable journeys, still imbued with a sense of spontaneity and a proclivity for taking the scenic route.

To these ears, “George Fox Searches” is unquestionably the highlight of the album. Iinspired by the life of the founder of the Religious Society of Friends, it’s an improvisation partially based on “How Can I Keep From Singing,” an 19th-century hymn (and, later, a folk song, popularized by Pete Seeger). Tyranny’s initially hesitant opening statement of the song’s melody gives way to a 20-minute trip that’s the album’s best example of Tyranny’s skill for in-the-moment composition. Just as the young George Fox did in the 17th century, the music wanders through a pastoral landscape, sacrificing little in the way of beauty at the hands of its improvisatory nature. The piece, like much of Detours, sounds polished and fully-formed, rife with surprise but unraveled in such a natural way that the occasional reprise of its theme, no matter how unanticipated its appearance, feels just right.

Tyranny doesn’t often rely on dissonance or jump cuts, with Detours’ exhibiting a more gentle approach to instant composition. “13 Detours” is a baker’s dozen of short improvisations, each commencing from a particular spot before unwinding in whatever way Tyranny, in the moment, sees fit. The silences can be full of suspense, and at times what appears to be a rest suddenly becomes the preemptive quiet signaling the start of another section of the series. The piece is the album’s most varied, moreso than “She Wore Red Shoes,” conceived as accompaniment to a dance by Stefa Zawerucha, which travels a largely more linear improvisatory path, anchored by the album’s only steady and persistent rhythmic pulse.

Detours, recorded between 2004 and 2010, lacks the fireworks of some of Tyranny’s most athletic playing, or the conceptual rigor of some of his earlier work, but more than makes up for it with the sheer comeliness of the music. That there’s enough of the unexpected to keep the listener on his or her toes is the icing on Detours cake. If it’s easy to cringe upon hearing the opening of “13 Detours,” fearing for the mawkish worst, it’s just as hard not to be summarily seduced by Tyranny’s playing. All week, “George Fox Searches” has had me humming a Baptist hymn, replete with Tyranny’s improvisatory embellishments. As recently as 2010 his former bandmate Iggy Pop was still stage diving into his early 60s, and the same time, “Blue” Gene Tyranny was taking his own leaps into the unknown, albeit with far less chance of bodily harm. Fifty years after a San Antonio teen skipped out on Julliard, a veteran continues to thumb his nose at convention, still seeking, still striving.

By Adam Strohm

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